Unlike the average murder mystery where the question is who did it, the puzzle in 'Drishyam' is how did he do it.

Still from Malayalam film Drishyam with Mohanlal Meena Esther and Ansiba sitting in a drawing room
Flix Flix Flashback Thursday, January 07, 2021 - 17:16

Mainstream cinema, a medium for popular culture, is often looked down upon by intellectuals who consider it to be a lowly art. But for George Kutty of Drishyam, brilliantly played by Mohanlal, cinema is his teacher. From the scores of films, language no bar, that he has greedily digested, George Kutty learns everything about life —  from romance and sleaze to psychology, forensics and police procedure.

It seems to be a wasteful hobby, especially to his wife Rani (Meena), who never loses an opportunity to remind him that he's studied only up to fourth standard. But when George Kutty's family comes under siege unexpectedly, it is cinema which becomes their greatest weapon.

Jeethu Joseph's 2013 film opens with a languid bus ride as the credits roll. The visuals show a police officer arriving at the station where he has been newly posted. We don't know it then, but this beginning holds the answer for the film's biggest question — what did George Kutty do with the corpse of the young man who was killed by his daughter?

The family man

Set in Rajakkad, Jeethu takes his time to draw the audience into the uneventful life of family man George Kutty, the owner of a humble cable TV business. Everything about George Kutty's life screams mundane. From the misogynistic wife jokes he cracks with his father-in-law (P Sreekumar) to him sitting alone as the women in the family shop enthusiastically, George Kutty is a man that we would have all met in real life. But, as the film progresses, you realise that much of the banter is of significance and not merely a gap filler.

Rajesh (Aneesh G Mohan), George Kutty's politician brother-in-law, telling the family about a quarry isn't just small talk, it is an important detail that will make its way into George Kutty's plan. His assistant Monichan's (Neeraj Madhav) tardiness isn't just for comedy, it will be of use to George Kutty later. The screenplay doesn't underline any of these moments; it is only later that you see how well-knit the script is.

Jeethu deliberately makes George Kutty's world as small and cosy as possible. His wife Rani is naive but ambitious, wanting the best for their daughters, Anju (Ansiba) and Anu (Esther). The loving grandparents and the locals (including policeman Madhavan, played by Kunchan, and teashop owner Suleiman, played by Kozhikode Narayanan Nair) who are fond of George Kutty complete the picture of a harmless man who only has the best intentions for everyone around him.

This characterisation is vital because Jeethu needs the audience to be firmly on George Kutty's side as he covers up a crime no less than murder. And so, when George Kutty runs and plants himself between a policeman and his daughter, protecting her from the law, we find ourselves rooting for him. When at the interval point, we see him in the foreground, with the family behind him, we want him to succeed in mission impossible.

The motive

Jeethu had reportedly worked on Drishyam even before Memories, his previous release, but it was in December 2013, a year after the Nirbhaya gangrape and murder case, that the Mohanlal film hit the screens. The Nirbhaya case had shaken up the country, making conversations about sexual violence and crimes against women primetime news. Victim blaming narratives were called out; politicians who made insensitive comments were slammed; hundreds of women broke their silence on social media about their experiences of sexual violence. The motive behind the crime in Drishyam — self defence against a possible rapist — appeared all the more justified to the audience.

Varun (Roshan Basheer), the son of Geetha (Asha Sharath), an Inspector General of Police, and Prabhakar (Siddique), is the perpetrator in the film. He films Anju in the nude without her knowledge and later threatens her with the clip. Anju ends up killing Varun when he suggests that Rani should have sex with him to stop him from leaking the clip. Although the film released in a climate where traditional perceptions about sexual violence were being overturned, it did not reflect these changes in the narrative. In fact, Rani pleads with Varun, telling him that the entire family will have to kill themselves if the clip is leaked; earlier, too, Jeethu inserts a seemingly innocuous rape joke between George Kutty and Rani, when the former comes home one night eager to sleep with his wife.

It can be argued that such notions of family honour are common among small town people, but cinema as a mass medium reiterates and amplifies such ideas. Nevertheless, it's still a relief that neither George Kutty nor Rani blames Anju for what happened.

Varun himself receives a somewhat sympathetic sketch, as a young man who is led astray. His parents blame themselves for how he turned out, with Geetha indulging him more than Prabhakar. However, though it initially looks like yet another film where a 'busy mother' is to be blamed for her children's mistakes, Prabhakar later reveals that Varun was born to them after several years of trying and that's the reason behind the pampering. The dynamic between the couple which overturns gender stereotypes is also an interesting choice. Geetha is cold-blooded and determined to seek the truth while Prabhakar is shaken by the brutality he witnesses in the pursuit of it.

What we get isn't a black and white crime story but a humanist narrative, with two families on either side trying to grapple with difficult circumstances. The only villain is constable Sahadevan (Kalabhavan Shajon in an excellent performance) who is corrupt and has a bone to pick with George Kutty. The scenes between the two, with Sahadevan baiting George Kutty and the latter resisting his attempts, again reveal George Kutty's understanding of the human psyche. All thanks to cinema.

Watch: A scene from Drishyam

The underdog

Unlike the average murder mystery where the question is who did it, the puzzle in Drishyam is how did he do it. Or more precisely, how did he cover it up. The title Drishyam or 'visual' takes on several meanings in the film. One, George Kutty's ideas come from cinema, the grand visual medium. Two, at crucial junctures in the film, beginning with how the flashback is told, George Kutty closes his eyes and the visual he wants from his memory swims to the forefront. Three, the visual that George Kutty creates painstakingly to fool the police team investigating the murder.

The screenplay builds the suspense with every scene, making the audience play a guessing game along with the police. How did George Kutty manage to recreate an entire day? Will his evidence hold up?

Though Mohanlal is the hero, Jeethu doesn't push the other characters to oblivion. In fact, George Kutty constantly reiterates that the plan will fall through if not for their team effort —  Njan ningale visvasikatte (Shall I put my faith in you?), he asks. Esther as little Anu is especially devastating. And it is right after this disturbing scene of custodial violence that we find that all of this was part of George Kutty's plan.

Watch: A scene from Drishyam

In what is surely among the best climax scenes in Malayalam cinema, Anu points out where the family had buried Varun's dead body on their property. The spot is dug up and there is certainly a body there; but before the audience can see what it is, the camera pans and shows us the stunned faces of Geetha, Prabhakar and others, looking back at George Kutty. What has flummoxed them? In the ultimate victory of the underdog, we see that it's an animal's body and not Varun's at all. They had under-estimated George Kutty yet again.

We do get to know what George Kutty did with the body, but Jeethu is clever in how he does this. Instead of having his hero embark on a lengthy explanation, he juxtaposes that sober night at the under construction police station along with George Kutty's present, when he walks out of the new building. The final lines uttered by George Kutty, about his faith in the police and the police station keeping him safe, ends up as a delicious secret between him and the audience.

Jeethu Joseph was accused of plagiarism shortly after Drishyam released by director Satheesh Paul but the case was dismissed by the court. Many also said that the film was a copy of the Japanese crime novel The Devotion of Suspect X. However, while there might be a few similarities, it would be unfair to call it a rip-off since the events that unfold after the crime are quite different.

Drishyam was remade in several Indian and foreign languages, making it one of the most successful Malayalam films ever. The mix of family sentiment, crime and suspense proved to be irresistible to audiences everywhere. The sequel of the film is expected to release on Amazon Prime Video soon. It's the same set of characters and the promos suggest that George Kutty's best kept secret will be out of the bag. It's a tough ask to make a part two for such a wildly successful film, and it remains to be seen if the Drishyam that Jeethu Joseph conjures up for fans is just as riveting as the first film.

The film is available on Disney+Hostar.

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